At Winter Park, it’s about the bumps
February 27, 2002
Editor’s note: Resort Report is a new feature in The Aspen Times designed to enlighten our readers and allow our reporters to have a little fun. From time to time, when our staff members get a chance to visit other resorts in Colorado and around the West, they will report on what makes these areas different from our own – what works and what doesn’t, what makes them unique, and whether or not they’re worth visiting. Our first report comes from Winter Park.Falling in with the wrong crowd has always come naturally for me, but it’s rarely been as rewarding as it was at Winter Park recently.The “wrong crowd” that I fell in with was a group of friends who share a passion for bump skiing. They prefer bumps for breakfast, bumps for lunch, bumps in the afternoon. (And, yes, we’re talking skiing here. Not bumps of another variety.)Their aprs-ski ritual would, no doubt, include bumps if the ski-area management didn’t kick them off the hill.And they’ve settled at the right place. Winter Park/Mary Jane is nothing if not a good place for bumps.The venerable old ski area owned by the city of Denver almost matches Snowmass’ 3,000 skiable acres. Winter Park considers 9 percent of its terrain suitable for beginners and 3 percent matched to experts.Somewhere in the middle is 21 percent of intermediate terrain and 67 percent labeled as “advanced.” Many of those advanced runs are where you find the bumps.Winter Park serves skiers with 22 lifts, only 20 of which are regularly operating this season. Just as the Aspen Skiing Co. has decided to cut costs by not operating the Bell Mountain Chair on Aspen Mountain or the Naked Lady lift at Snowmass, Winter Park has taken a couple of lifts out of commission.Management has apparently justified the decision on grounds that the same terrain is served by other lifts.Winter Park’s tree skiing gets high marks from many of its fans. It’s also got some attention-demanding steeps in Vasquez Bowl.On one Sunday in late January, when I visited, the snow wasn’t fresh enough to make the steeps or trees all that attractive, but ample snow had fallen recently, enough to create great conditions on the bump runs.The mogul mashers I hooked up with, through two friends who are part of the group, work on the Ski Train – the iron horse that chugs up to Winter Park from Denver’s Union Station on weekends and many Fridays throughout the ski season.”We’ve developed a friendship over 10 years,” Julie White, queen of the bump-skiing group, said of her fold.She began working the train as a volunteer in 1988. She didn’t have a car but wanted to get into the mountains from Denver. Working the train was a great option.In return for helping passengers on and off the Ski Train and answering their questions during the two-hour-or-so ride, she received lift tickets to Winter Park. This year she joined the Ski Train’s paid staff as marketing director.A core group of about 10 volunteers became skiing buddies and evolved into very good bump skiers. They ski for fun and carry a good-natured attitude out onto the hills, but cannot help but push one another to do better in the bumps.As soon as the train stops at the base of Winter Park, they whirl into action to unload passengers’ gear, then scramble themselves to reach the lifts for a full day of skiing.Many of the skiers in White’s group, including her husband, A.C. Glass, came to Winter Park because of the convenience of the train. Now they keep coming back because of the bumps.Glass, who regularly skied the Summit and Eagle county resorts when he lived in the high country, became a Winter Park convert eight years ago after moving to Denver.”I wouldn’t ski as much without the train because the drive to Winter Park sucks and the traffic on I-70 makes any weekend day trip unappealing,” he said.As a resort as a whole, he doesn’t believe Winter Park stacks up very well with some of its competition. “Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone and Beaver Creek blow it away,” he said.But as a ski area, he believes only Vail and Copper are better.Winter Park has always suffered from a perception among many Colorado skiers and riders that it is a poor stepsister of Vail Resorts’ empire and Intrawest’s Copper Mountain.As a city-owned, independent ski area, Winter Park hasn’t received the same attention as most other major resorts in the state. The Winter Park Recreation Association, which runs the ski area, hasn’t been able to make recent payments to Denver, let alone undertake base upgrades.In some ways, that’s good. The ski area provides a mellow, unpretentious experience. “Real” people ski there.And after all, it’s really the mountain terrain, not the base amenities, that should define the area.In other ways, the lack of attention has hurt. The base is dull with a capital “D.” Gerald Hines’ organization built the 328-room Zephyr Lodge at the ski area’s base starting in 1997. That lodge contains the Kickapoo Tavern, the best place to hang out at the base.But Hines’ new creation isn’t really integrated into the old base lodge and facilities, which are sort of in disarray and a bit shabby.Even though the train is one of the best pieces of the Winter Park experience, the unloading area isn’t integrated into the base, either. You kind of feel like you’re disembarking at a gulag instead of a ski area. Fortunately, it’s just a short walk to the chairlifts.Winter Park, like Snowmass Village, is ripe for big changes at the base. Intrawest Corp. has been selected to operate and develop Winter Park. While no application is close to being submitted yet, it will likely include a substantial amount of residences and tourist accommodations as well as upgraded skier services.Intrawest was also selected by the Aspen Skiing Co. to develop Base Village, a conglomeration of commercial space and condominiums at Snowmass.Both projects are certain to include changes to base-area lifts.The mogul mashers at Winter Park are anxious for some changes – like upgrades to certain chairlifts and mountain eateries. But they are also fearful that the ski area’s laid-back appeal will be replaced by glitz.But let’s face it, the only change that would qualify as a major disaster for this group would be if some of those great bump runs get replaced by corduroy to appease hoity-toity new customers.